Jump to Navigation

William Stafford

Trading card with photo of William StaffordPoet, educator.  Born:  January 17, 1914, Hutchinson, Kansas.  Died:  August 28, 1993 Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Although his first collection of poems was published when he was 46, William Stafford became one of the best-known American poets of the 20th century.  From 1950 until his death in 1993, he wrote every day, often in the early morning.  He wrote 67 books and received many honors for his work.

William Edgar Stafford was born in Hutchinson in 1914.  While he was growing up, his family moved around Kansas, following his father's search for employment.  He graduated from high school in Liberal in 1933 and attended college at the University of Kansas, graduating in 1937.  He began writing poetry while studying at K.U.

World War II was a defining time in Stafford's life.  He was a pacifist and did not believe in carrying arms.  During the war he was a conscientious objector.  He served his country in wartime, just not in the armed forces.  Instead, he was one of about 12,000 men who were in the Civilian Public Service. He was assigned to the forestry service, where he spent 1942-1946 fighting forest fires, building roads, and working the land to prevent soil erosion, as well as other work.  This work was done in the name of peace.

He wrote a memoir of his experiences as his master's thesis, which he received from the University of Kansas in 1947.  Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Times was published in 1948.  He wrote that although he and his fellow pacifists were serving their country, many looked down upon them.  He wrote, "At first some of the Forest Service men had talked largely, among themselves when some of our men had happened to overhear, about their enmity for CO's..."

He moved to Oregon in 1948 to join the faculty of Lewis & Clark College, where he taught until retirement.  He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1954.  While in the CPS camps, Stafford assembled four volumes of his poetry, but they remained unpublished.  His first collection of poems, West of Your City was published in 1960.  His second major collection, Traveling Through the Dark, was published two years later and it won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1963. He spent 1970 as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now known as the United States Poet Laureate. Oregon governor Tom McCall appointed him Oregon Poet Laureate in 1975.  He died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, in 1993.

This sample of his writing is from the poem, Across Kansas:

My family slept those level miles
but like a bell rung deep till dawn
I drove down an aisle of sound,
nothing real but in the bell,
past the town where I was born.


Photo courtesy William Stafford Archives, Lewis & Clark College

Entry: Stafford, William

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2011

Date Modified: July 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.